There are nine candidates vying for five seats on the Guilford County Board of Education. All of them attended a virtual forum Tuesday hosted by the Guilford County Education Alliance.
Candidates were asked about what should be done to close the district’s persistent racial and socio-economic gaps in student learning outcomes. The two at-large candidates had very different answers.
Democratic candidate Alan Sherouse is a pastor and parent of four in Guilford County Schools.
He says the board needs to ensure children have equal access to teachers, social capital, supportive services, and culturally responsive and sensitive teaching. Sherouse also says the district needs to practice restorative justice in discipline.
“We also need to remember the system that this gap that exists in education exists in health care and economics and so many other fields,” Sherouse said. “And we have to name racism. We have to name that it exists that it doesn't look like segregated lunch counters, but it still exists, and we have to name the injustice to work against it.”
In the district’s strategic plan, Guilford County Schools acknowledges that race and ethnicity are the strongest predictors of achievement.
Sherouse’s opponent, Republican candidate Demetria Carter, says racism is not the problem.
“Racism on the scale that a couple of the other candidates have described does not exist in this country,” she said. “I was born in a segregated society. I know what racism is up close and personal. I don't see it in my daily life.”
According to the district’s report, Black and Latino students who are not economically disadvantaged are still under-performing compared to white economically disadvantaged students in reading and science. The report also states that students of color are over-represented in the frequency of disciplinary action, and under-represented in gifted and honors programs.
Carter says her solution to racial gaps in student learning outcomes is to look at how children are prepared in Pre-K.
“Maybe they're not ready for school, and we need to make them ready for kindergarten at least,” she said. “Have them learn their numbers. Have them learn their ABCs.”
She also says teachers should be using the Socratic method in middle and high school, to encourage students to think deeply about what they are learning.
Early voting for the election will be held from Oct. 20 to Nov. 5. Election day is Nov. 8.
Here’s how other candidates answered the question about racial gaps in student learning outcomes, and more:
What should the district do to close racial and socioeconomic gaps in student learning outcomes?
District 2 Republican candidate Crissy Pratt is a GCS parent and has a background in teaching. She says the district needs to focus on changing the culture of schools, and “make academics cool again,” and provide recognition for significant academic performance.
“We need to ensure that all of our students, no matter what their background, are being provided all of the same opportunities,” she said. “That we're educating them about the variety of programs that we have within our school system, and encouraging people to apply for programs, take classes that are of high interest to them.”
She said she believes the district will see a performance increase across the board for students if schools focus on positivity, optimism, and the success students can have.
District 2 Democratic candidate Amanda Cook is a former teacher with Guilford County Schools and has a child in the district as well.
Like Sherouse, Cook says acknowledging racism is the first step.
“Recognizing the experience of the people in our community who are seeing the inequity on a daily basis and saying, ‘Yes, your experience is real’ can be very powerful just for being inclusive as a county,” Cook said.
She said the district also needs to consider equity, and specifically spoke about resources and school nutrition.
“We have to understand that when one school is begging for money to have their football field maintained, and another school is begging for money to fix cracks in the walls, you know, those are two different experiences,” she said. “So we do have to recognize that not all needs are on the same level. And we have to address the most immediate needs first.”
District 4 Democratic candidate Deon Clark is a faith leader in the community and parent to three students in Guilford County Schools. He said the district needs to understand that the achievement gap is a systemic issue that requires a holistic approach.
“I think that public schools, GCS, those of us who are community leaders, and on the board of education, we have to look at this and try to improve this gap because it's a very, very heavy issue,” Clark said. “And for those people who think that the racial and socio-economic gap does not exist and does not affect student outcomes, it weighs heavily.”
District 4 Republican candidate Linda Welborn has served on the Guilford County Board of Education since 2012. She says education is an equalizer.
“If we can get all children to a level of education where they can read and do math and everything, they can move on up that ladder to where they will have an opportunity to do amazing things,” she said. “If we leave them where they're not reading and doing math appropriately, we're going to lose them in fifth grade.”
She said that if the school district encourages students to have big dreams and work hard, children can achieve.
District 6 Democratic candidate Khem Irby was elected to the board in 2018. She says that data shows there is an “opportunity gap” for students.
“We use that data so that way, we can actually drill down on what we need to do, equitably,” she said. “It tells us something about the student. It tells us something sometimes about the family dynamic. That's why we need those social workers. That's why we need the mental health professionals.”
She says the school system cannot meet all of the children’s different needs, and address children as a whole, without community partnerships.
District 6 Republican candidate Tim Andrew has a background in project management and is a parent to a GCS graduate. He said the way to lessen racial gaps is to provide the children with vision and connections.
He said his company has invited young Black men to visit the office and learn about engineering.
“It was a great opportunity to build that relationship and say that, you know, ‘You don't have to look like a particular person to get to this point. If I can do it, you can do it.’ And these are things that I would like to continue to do,” Andrew said.
District 8 Democratic candidate Deena Hayes-Greene is the current chairperson of the Guilford County Board of Education. She has been on the board since 2002.
She explained that the racial gaps are systemic, and listed the racial and ethnic disparities the county faces as it relates to maternal and child health, diabetes, housing and environmental exposure.
“There's not a one-dimensional or single answer to that problem, and we have to stop dumbing it down,” Hayes-Greene said. “Education is great. It is life-altering, but it is not the great equalizer because, as we've said repeatedly, racial inequities exist among highly educated professionals and high income earners.”
She said the district needs to continue to gather and analyze data that will in turn help the district allocate resources more effectively, as well as work with community partners.
What are the current strengths of the district? And how would you build upon these strengths to help Guilford County Schools become even more effective?
Pratt highlighted the people involved in the district as a top strength, and said the district should provide incentives for teachers, especially those working throughout the pandemic.
“We want to incentivize them to stay here in Guilford County and keep promoting excellence,” Pratt said. “We need to work with our parents as well. We have some amazing parents who really care about their kids and are passionate, and they want transparency into what's happening in the classroom and they want to be involved in their students’ schools.”
Cook said that there is creative leadership throughout the community that needs to be tapped into.
“I think that remembering the rich history of this area, and remembering where we've come from, is one of our greatest strengths that we can constantly be looking back so that we can plan forward,” she said. “And as somebody who works in creativity and innovation every day, I want to keep pushing that forward, and keep raising the voices that haven't been heard yet so that we can continue to improve.
Sherouse named teachers and parents as some of the district's greatest strengths.
“One of them is our educators, whom we should treat with trust and support and fairness, who should be offered opportunities for meaningful advancement, who should be invited to the tables where decisions are made, and who should be supported with full funding befitting their work,” he said. “Second, is the parents and the trusted adults and caregivers in the lives of our students who already are able to partner in so many meaningful ways with our Guilford County educators.”
He also listed the relationship between county leadership including county commissioners and the Board of Education.
Hayes-Greene spoke about the strength of leadership in the district, too.
“I have had the opportunity to serve with four different superintendents and each leader has brought something incredibly valuable to the district, and maintained what we were doing well,” she said.
In addition to superintendents, she said the district needs to continue to advocate for compensation and benefits for staff.
“It says loud and clear, ‘We value our workforce and the lifelong impact they have on our students,’ to invest in professional development across the district, our transportation staff, our school nutrition staff,” Hayes-Greene said. “They have experiences that can help us address or resolve issues regarding the supply chain and how it impacts their job. I also believe that job satisfaction is very important to our employees, and it impacts things like attendance, performance and willingness to go beyond what is required of them.”
Irby also spoke about the need to strengthen employees from every department — maintenance, bus drivers, teachers, and office workers. She also highlighted community partnerships and students in the district as strengths.
“I just want to keep building on those things. Building on the community partnerships that we have, building with our parents, you know, strengthening them and helping them to become better advocates for their children,” Irby said.
Welborn spoke about the district’s Career and Technical Education program as a strength.
“College is not for every student, and the cost of college has reached an unaffordable level. So, Career Technical offers an opportunity to learn high-demand trades that pay well, with no out-of-pocket cost or minimal cost,” Welborn said. “GCS needs to continue building business partnerships to enhance the learning process, as well as build relationships and mentors for our students.”
Andrew also spoke about the Career and Technical Education program, and specifically discussed how he as an employer could contribute.
“The pipeline of the CTE program that Guilford County Schools has allows us to have those young men or young women with a potential to take on the workforce immediately,” Andrew said. “And we can build more upon that. But again, the CTE is very important because we are expanding my company, other companies, and we're going to need those students who are well trained to be able to take on these jobs and expand the economic output of the Triad area.”
Carter praised the program as well, but also spoke about the district’s weaknesses when answering this question.
“I think it is a good program, and it has lots of merit. But that only fits one part of the mission of schools. That is to prepare students for careers,” she said. “What about those students who want to go on to higher education? I am sure that our school system is not preparing those students.”
Clark emphasized some of the points of pride in the district.
“We also have four GCS high schools that are top 10 in the state. GCS has five signature academies,” he said. “We have one of the highest graduation rates in Guilford County history.”
He said the recent school bonds were another strength for GCS.
“I think the campaign and advocacy that led to the recent bond referendum is something that we did well, but we, as a community and system, acknowledged that we need funds to improve our school facilities,” Clark said. “And it showed us that community alignment is important, which is very pivotal for GC success. And I like to continue to energy and momentum in other schools needs such as teacher recruitment, school safety, and mental health support.”
What is your vision for how the district can build the kind of schools that inspire students and help them reach their full potential?
Pratt said many schools in the county are in an unacceptable state of disrepair.
“We need the schools to be able, first and foremost, to meet students' basic needs. It's not OK for kids to go to a school with no heat and no air conditioning. So obviously that has to be first and foremost,” she said.
With basic needs met, she said schools should be designed to provide a variety of learning spaces conducive to students’ different learning needs.
Carter questioned how the district could let conditions get to this point.
“Why would a board, a superintendent, a principal allow students to attend a school that doesn't have any heat in the middle of winter? Why would those people allow a student to sit in a classroom where there's no air conditioning, and they've been told that there's no air conditioning?" she asked.
Irby said a recurring problem for the district was not having a fully funded budget. With recent approval from the North Carolina Local Government Commission, the district can sell $1.7 billion in school bonds to fund improvement projects.
“So here we are at this opportunity with the bond to touch every school, to bring our schools into the 21st century,” Irby said.
She says her hope is that the district can fully fund education so teachers can choose books and resources for the classroom without spending money out of their own pockets.
“That's the kind of environment I want you to come into when you come work for Guilford County,” Irby said.
Clark said he advocated for the GCS school bond to improve facilities, and added that this should be a primary focus for the district.
“A student cannot learn effectively if they're not placed in the right environment,” he said. “And so those bond dollars are strictly in place to make sure we provide the best education, opportunities and technology for our students.”
Sherouse reiterated that students need a space that is safe and conducive to creativity, but said that the buildings also affect the teachers.
“I think we sometimes forget that a student's learning environment is also a teacher's working environment. And it is just as important that we execute this plan as a way of supporting our teachers, improving teacher retention, improving the quality of life and work for those who served so ably,” Sherouse said.
Cook also looked to teachers as a way of improving schools.
“One of my biggest dreams is that not only we build the schools that we need, and meet all of the deficits that have been sitting in our county for decades, but that we train our teachers to teach in a way that really works in these buildings,” she said. “To utilize every space and every opportunity that we're being provided with through this amazing school bond.”
She suggested sending public teachers to study and learn with colleagues in the state, in the country and internationally to spark innovation.
Hayes-Greene spoke about the importance of teacher preparation.
“If they're not prepared and equipped for the realities in our classrooms, they can't be effective,” she said. “And they need to know that what they're doing matters, and where people work has an impact on how they instruct, how they perform, and how they learn.”
Some candidates focused on the financial management aspect of improving school conditions.
Welborn said she has seen project costs significantly increase, and stressed the need for "good project management."
“You can't keep your promises to the voter if you're not spending the money efficiently and effectively,” she said. “I want to see all schools have the deferred maintenance caught up, because that's what we promised parents, and whatever money we have left, we can build wonderful CTE buildings."
Andrew specifically spoke about the skills he could bring as a project manager.
“I look at cost, scope, and schedule for a living. It’s what we do to make sure that our projects are done on time,” he said.
In addition to making sure the district is spending funds wisely, he said the district needs to ensure that school buildings are maintained properly.
The video of the virtual candidate forum can be found on the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce Facebook page.
Amy Diaz covers education for WFDD in partnership with Report For America. You can follow her on Twitter at @amydiaze.